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Search and Create

By Waldemar Ingdahl - July 7, 2004 12:00 AM

In his article AlterNet: Creative Class War Richard Florida, professor of regional economic development at Carnegie Mellon University, offers and interesting and worrying analysis. After 9/11, he says, the US is making itself a less appealing place for "creatives" to emigrate to. But Florida also claims Scandinavia is moving forward in creativity. Is this true?

Florida's core idea is that economic development is increasingly driven by "the creative class", people whose work is based on their own creativity, initiative and skill. Places that attract them will grow and prosper, and in turn become even more attractive. There are of course plenty of spill-over effects to the rest of the economy and other locations, but the movement of the relatively moveable creatives are a key social force. The key, according to Florida, is the combination of talent, tolerance and technology. Sweden clearly has all three. But why are we not experiencing an economic boom? Sure, the economy is not doing badly at present (at our rather low standards, we are happy when we experience growth of any kind), but it is hardly a place like Austin or Amsterdam.

In short, it is all about structure. Without the three "T"s it is hard to get the creative feedback, but the feedback can be inhibited by other factors. Stockholm is an obvious creative cluster in Sweden; it is the only real metropolitan area. There are some other attractive areas (like the Malmö/Copenhagen region in the south), but given the small population of Sweden it is hard to get enough people to set off the creative feedback loop. You cannot spread them too thinly, so they tend to end up in the few centers. So a simple cause is just lack of people.

However, it is noteworthy that people are relatively unwilling to move around in Sweden. While creatives are likely more mobile, quite a few do not leave their home regions. This means that they do not contribute, or gain from, the creative feedback of a cluster. Politicians of course want to keep voters in their districts happy, so making sure nobody needs to leave to find work has been a powerful political force over the last decades. This compounds the problem, as the atmosphere of "vi flytt' int'" ("we won't move") is reflected back as policy, making it possible to stay even when economics says differently. It produces a lot of local projects that tie up the creatives in less-than-optimal structures. Tax transfers from the apparently undeserving metropolitan creative regions to the rest of the country add another burden (as well as disincentive to go to Stockholm).

Even worse, horizontal career mobility in Sweden is also relatively weak. Creatives are often stuck within the same few major companies. This suggests that just as there are underutilized creatives in the non-metropolitan regions, there are also lots of underutilized creatives in the Swedish companies. This is made worse by a government policy that benefits big corporations (low taxes, a government that likes you) but blocks out small companies and entrepreneurs (which are burdened with administrative overhead, and treated by the governments as at best an "alternate lifestyle" and more often as potential economic criminals). The creatives can start their own firms, but it is hard (creativity-sapping) work, and the high wages even for non-creative support jobs like secretaries makes it expensive to hire people to deal with the overhead.

Start-ups doing something tangible and industrial get far better support than these new, strange, unclassifiable ideas. Swedish industry and government understand steelworks, machine workshops, call centres and mobile phones. They do not understand think tanks, lifestyle medicine or the Internet. There is a multitude of programs to help people start their own companies, but these are of course aimed at old style companies - especially in rural regions.

Florida is keen on universities, and lauds the idea of opening more of them in less creative areas. From his perspective Sweden would be marvelous, since the government has started many new universities (and is turning university colleges into formal universities) over the last decade. More people than ever attend tertiary education.

But there is a problem here. Florida sees universities as places where the creative feedback process starts, where people gain the values of the creative class that enable them to link with others later on, and where new creative clusters can emerge. It is not enough to just drop a good university into a small town and expect it to blossom. Many of these new institutions are just as ineffectual in turning their regions to the creative economy as Carnegie Mellon apparently has been in Pittsburgh (according to Florida). There are plenty of company clusters around Swedish universities, but far too many are dependent on a continuing outside support rather than making profits.

The move towards mass tertiary education may be diluting the creativity fostering effect of higher education. Quite a few of the people attending education these days are simply there to avoid becoming unemployment statistics. As long as they study they get education grants, and the government can boast about a high degree of education and low unemployment. But university funding from the government is dependent on the number of students who pass exams. Having lots of students that all pass is far better than having fewer students with many who fail. While people at universities are not willingly or deliberately lowering standards, the funding system rewards them for doing so.

There is the final problem. I have a strong impression that quite a few of the students go through the system without acquiring creative values. They have the skills, but they do not see themselves as creative agents able and willing to shape their own future. They are prepared for a job in a big company, but are not likely to create something new. This weakening of the enculturation may actually undermine the role of university in the long run, as they become less and less creative cores.

One can point to many factors here, but I think the criticism Florida makes of the US government and political parties is relevant for Sweden too (and for many other parts of the EU). The political class does not understand the creative class and thus does not promote it. The division between high- and low-creative areas leads to political decisions that further limit the creatives.


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